joanne lee


getting on

I offered some thoughts on the resourcefulness of Fine Art graduates in this essay for the 2010 Nottingham Trent University Fine Art degree show catalogue.

I’ve begun to detect a curious sense of symmetry between circumstances for the students finishing in 2010, and my own graduation in 1992. It was an election year, in which a party who’d served three consecutive terms was fighting to hold on to power, the country was in recession with high streets punctuated by countless vacant shops and my studies had taken place against the background of a war in the Gulf. Not then the most auspicious time to emerge into the world with a degree in Fine Art and a sense of uncertainty about what exactly might happen next. My parents had imagined, I think, that the end of my course would see me return home to the North East, as my sister had done many years previously upon completing her training as a primary school teacher. Even though I didn’t really have a clue about what I wanted from the future, somehow the idea of returning from whence I’d come just never occurred to me. Sheffield, my adoptive city had become home: it’s where my friends were, where many of my most formative experiences had taken place, and it was smack bang in the middle of the country, with easy rail access to all the other places I’d want to go.

The other significant thing about Sheffield at that time was that it was incredibly cheap. I’d toyed with a move south to London, but being a thrifty soul (for which read a bit tight), I couldn’t quite get my head around the price of much of its accommodation, so decided to stay put. For a while, this thriftiness got me into trouble: I took a room in a shared flat, which cost very little, but turned out to be the coldest, most miserable place imaginable. Viewing it on a warm summer’s day, I took in only the elegant proportions of the high-ceilinged Victorian villa, its large windows and ample space. The reality, come winter, was rather more grim: my clothes rotted inside chests of drawers thanks to the damp, and the only way of staving off hypothermia in rooms whose radiators were too undersized to make any impression upon the temperature, was to take a scalding bath and retreat to bed whilst one’s skin was still pink and steaming. That the bed had been inherited from the previous tenant, and carried all too visible traces of use, meant that this wasn’t the most appealing place to linger, but I learnt to suppress feelings of disgust horror in favour of warmth!

This situation, of course, became untenable, though I did make it through one pretty bleak winter. I had to find an alternative. Still too mean to spend much on a flat, (because I didn’t want to work full time in a job, which took me away from the creative activities I wanted to pursue, and because I was also renting a studio space) I found myself wandering the city looking for options. Necessity being the mother of invention, I tuned in to the possibilities of a semi-derelict three-bedroom house neighbouring a property in which I’d lived as a student. I asked around, discovered that the owners were overseas, but that an agency was allegedly managing it, and managed to persuade them to show it to me, even though it was in such a terrible state that they weren’t even looking to rent it. The previous tenants had done an excellent job of wrecking things: the toilet cistern was smashed, the cellar was brimful of milk bottles, which looked as if they’d simply been thrown down the stairs, a terrible mural in the sitting room had been partially concealed with an peculiar mixture of white emulsion and red gloss paint, and the doors were daubed with obscenities… (Years later, it always amused me that if I stood in a certain light, I could still read them, despite the over-painting.)

Of course, despite all this, I saw its possibilities and with an agreement made upon the basis of incredibly cheap rent, I said I’d take it. The first month was free, as it needed so much mending, cleaning and decorating it was initially quite unliveable: for a few weeks, I wrinkled my nose with revulsion as I poked into filthy corners and chucked rotten furniture into skips. The abandoned house had seemingly developed an ecosystem of its own so that one of the chairs had acquired residents of its own, whom I felt a little mean at evicting: a neat wasps nest hung down from its frame like a curious udder. I tried to guess which of the huge spiders with crunchy, chitinous legs were merely playing dead, and would spring to life as soon as I tried to scoop them from bathtub and cupboards. I co-opted support from my new neighbour, a builder, who replaced the cistern and lent me his ladders and paint rollers, and scavenged homewares from family, friends and charity shops. I ended up living in that house for the next twelve years: it was my home, as well eventually as my workspace, and in it I began to discover what might be possible for me in terms of living a life and being involved with art.

I tell the story here because it seems to say something about what I consider to be the attributes of a Fine Art graduate: they tend to be resourceful, able to spot potential and possibility, stoical in the face of difficulty, not easily daunted, good at talking to people and finding out information or discovering materials, able to engage in practical matters, as well as to exploit imaginatively the world in which they find themselves. I suspect that many graduates emerging from courses in other subjects during the same period may have found my life choices entirely unappealing: no doubt a good proportion wanted to buy smart cars, sign up to mortgages and spend a fortune upon dream weddings, but such things have never really compelled me; all I’ve ever wanted is to free myself to be interested in the things by which I am excited or perturbed. When I look around at the friends with whom I’ve remained in contact who are now artists, musicians, film-makers, sound designers, writers, curators, lecturers, and who vary in their approach from being highly-skilled technicians to adopting more idiosyncratic forms of creativity, I see a cussed determination to stick at the things that matter to them and a similar pleasure in pursuing their own curiosities.

Of course, the world into which 2010 Fine Art students emerge is certainly not the same one I encountered in 1992; I’m well aware that that tuition fees and student loans encumber people with debt in a way I know I’d have found hard to countenance. But when I look around at Nottingham Trent’s recent graduates, I see just how entrepreneurial they have been in inventing their own scenes, fostering new communities and developing spaces, within the city and elsewhere. I’m wary of sounding over-romantic, but I honestly believe that the combination of a Fine Art education privileging self-initiated practice, with a determined individual who has a strong social network, is a potent brew in tricky economic times. In difficult circumstances, when little seems to be on offer in terms of funding and official support, the personal creative necessity to make things happen, along with the ability to look for opportunities where others may not, can be astonishingly effective.

I want to end with a moment of synchronicity. As I was writing this text, some publicity arrived through the post for the upcoming St Bride Library Conference. (St Bride, just off Fleet Street in London, is the world’s foremost printing and graphic arts library.) This year the annual conference will focus upon creative people taking it upon themselves to do things differently, in order to produce ‘work of originality and distinction’. The organisers make five suggestions about how they consider this might be done: by moving away from the styles and conventions of the time; by not waiting to be asked and just doing it anyway; by taking control of aspects of production which are normally left to others; by undertaking projects which are driven by a desire to push the boundaries of what can be achieved; and finally, by seeking to build on, rather than imitate, the lessons that can be learned from predecessors and contemporaries. If I could list my aspirations for the 2010 graduates in Fine Art from Nottingham Trent University, these suggestions wouldn’t be far off the mark: I know they are equipped and capable of rising to such challenges, whether within the discipline of contemporary art or in other aspects of their lives. I wish them all the best in exploring where they might want to go next and in discovering what they want to make happen. Here’s to getting on with it!